Christianity: Protestant

Social Structure and Institutions

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Protestant Denominations

The word ‘Protestant' is an overarching term that refers to numerous churches and denominations that generally accept the tenets of the Protestant Reformation. Such beliefs include upholding the Bible as the ultimate authority, a relationship with God and an emphasis on salvation through faith rather than ritual. Differences among the denominations are usually on the basis of doctrine, worship practices and perspectives on how the church should be governed and structured.


Anabaptist, meaning ‘one who baptises again’, refers to the practice of re-baptising converts who were previously baptised as infants (once historically considered a crime). Due to this history, Anabaptists have not always been considered a part of mainstream Protestantism. The present-day traditions of the Mennonites, Hutterites and Amish are considered descendants of the Anabaptist movement.


The Anglican Church is also known as the Church of England, which reflects the origin of the denomination. A unique characteristic of the Anglican Church is the use of the centuries-old ‘Book of Common Prayer’ in liturgical worship. It also has a clergy with bishops holding the highest position. In some Anglican churches, women are permitted to be ordained in the clergy.


Baptist churches comprise one of the largest Protestant denominations worldwide. One of the most distinctive ideas in Baptist churches is the belief that baptism rightly administered requires one to be a believer who can genuinely profess their faith and that it must be done by total immersion in the water. Each church is autonomous, thus, creating diversity among Baptists – some churches are more conservative and formal in nature while others more liberal.


Congregational churches are named so due to the fact that each local congregation has full authority and autonomy. As such, usually the whole congregation contributes to decision making. Worship is typically non-liturgical.


The Episcopal Church has its root in the Anglican Church. The denomination is referred to as ‘Episcopal’ because it is ruled by bishops (the Greek word episkopos means ‘bishop’). The Episcopal denomination is diverse, but one main commonality is the use of ‘The Book of Common Prayer’ for worship.


Lutheranism traces its origins back to the teachings of Martin Luther, a forefather of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. The Lutheran tradition is comprised of autonomous regional or national churches (e.g. the Church of Sweden). Lutheranism is characterised by the use of liturgy, and the high regard for baptism and communion as sacraments. There is considerable diversity within Lutheranism as there is no central authority that governs the Lutheran Church as a whole.


The Methodist Church (sometimes known as Wesleyan Church) was founded by John Wesley (a minister of the Anglican Church) in the 18th century. Methodist churches vary in their style of worship, but most emphasise preaching and reading the Bible, celebrating the sacraments of baptism and communion, and the use of hymn singing. There is no universal authority governing the Methodist Church as a whole. Rather, individual churches are autonomous.


Some churches choose to identify as ‘non-denominational’, which means that they do not have a denominational affiliation. Such churches have independent congregations or may loosely link themselves with other churches of a similar doctrinal position. Members of such churches usually identify themselves simply as ‘Christians’ rather than, for example, ‘Lutheran’ or ‘Anglican’.


Pentecostal churches, sometimes referred to as ‘charismatic’ churches, emerged in the early 20th century. The main distinguishing feature of Pentecostal churches is the belief that Christians should seek a post-conversion religious experience known as being ‘born again’ or baptised in the Holy Spirit. This is also accompanied by the sign of speaking in tongues (also known formally as glossolalia or xenoglossy). Pentecostal churches are often evangelical. In terms of worship style, evangelical Pentecostal churches usually follow non-liturgical forms of worship and typically use contemporary genres of music in their services.


Presbyterian churches are named so because they are governed by elders or ‘presbyters’ (derived from the Greek term ‘presbuteros’ meaning ‘elders’). The movement was founded by John Knox in Scotland in the 16th century. It is distinguishable on the basis of institutional structure (council of leaders) and worship (usually liturgical, but not always). Presbyterian churches are sometimes under the same category as Reformed churches.


The Reformed (sometimes known as Calvinist) denomination was one of the first to emerge in Protestantism. It began in Switzerland in the 16th century by various theologians such as John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli. Reformed churches are usually Congregationalist or Presbyterian. Reformed churches differ from other Protestant churches usually on the basis of doctrine. Worship is usually liturgical and music is typically in the form of hymns or psalms sung by a choir.

Social Structure

Generally, there is no specific social structure that underpins a follower of a Protestant tradition. This means that many may use services and may reside anywhere they wish. Some Christians may visit a Christian hospital or send their children to a Christian school. However, this is usually determined by personal preference.


In some Christian denominations, a common figure in an individual’s life is the role of a godparent (also known as a sponsor). Often, an individual will have one female and one male godparent. However, an individual may have one godparent, who is typically a baptised Christian. Godparents often bear witness to their godchild’s baptism and are responsible for the spiritual development of the child. In some predominantly Christian countries (such as countries in , Southern Europe and the Philippines), the relationship between the biological parents and godparents is particularly special. The two couples may hold mutual obligations to one another to ensure the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of the child.

Organisational Structure

All Protestant denominations have their own organisation. Some are more structured than others. For example, Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches have a formal ministry or group of leaders who preside over the congregation on church matters and ceremonies. Other churches are non-hierarchical and all members of the congregation are involved in decision-making (such as Baptist and Pentecostal churches). Protestant churches are usually interdependent. This means that they work with other churches within their denomination while remaining self-governing.


Ministry refers to people who are set apart to be ministers or those who offer special vocational service in a church. It is generally believed that all individuals are able to have a relationship with God and play an important role in the decision-making on church matters. Nonetheless, most Protestant churches usually have a group of members who act as leaders and coordinators of the church. 

The type of ministry and its structure varies depending on the denomination. Some have a formal threefold order (known as an episcopal structure), which is found in the Anglican Church. Others follow a presbyterian structure with a leader (usually known as a ‘pastor’) and elected members of the congregation (‘elders’). This form of ministry is followed by Presbyterian and Reformed churches. Finally, some are congregational whereby the local congregation holds authority over church governance (such as Baptist churches).

The name of the church leader differs depending on the denomination. Some common titles include pastor, minister, elder or reverend. The role of the church leader(s) includes preparing for the weekly service, writing the sermon of the week, preaching, organising activities for the congregation, meeting with other church leaders, visiting church members, and conducting special ceremonies (e.g. weddings, baptisms and funerals). Those who hold considerable authority are usually required to gain academic or formal training for their qualification. In some churches, both men and women are eligible to be ordained as ministers or church leaders. Other churches may have a male-only ministry.

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